Liz Murray's Story

by Cynthia Kersey

"Anything that is within someone else's reach is also within yours. Set your goals no matter how impossible they may seem. Then focus on what is between you and that goal. And then, simply take out the obstacles as they come."
-Liz Murray

You've heard of the part of New York City called Hell's Kitchen? Liz Murray had her own version, without the famous name. But it was just as hellish. As she and her sister were growing up in the roughest part of the Bronx, her parents were hardcore drug addicts, often shooting up in front of the girls. "They were barely able to provide for my sister and me because drugs took all the income," she recalls. By the time Liz was six, her mother was a raging alcoholic and her father's drug habit was out of control.

Liz's parents were too busy getting high to provide for their daughters in any way. The girls never got new clothing, and Liz took to knocking on neighbors' doors at dinnertime to get something to eat. "My sister and I were very dirty and had lice in our hair," she says. "Our teachers at school were suspicious about our situation and called the Bureau of Child Welfare. But my sister and I got very good at preparing for these visits." Coached by their parents, the girls would make up stories about why they weren't in school. Amazingly, the social workers accepted the stories at face value. Year after year, the girls stayed home, watching their parents pass out and scavenging for food, and no one did anything to help. 

Becoming Self-Sufficient 
Under the circumstances, Liz had no choice but to become self-reliant. When she was nine, she started working, bagging groceries for tips, bringing home $20 to $25 a day, which she would use to buy groceries. She also pumped gas for tips, relishing the feeling of independence this gave her. 

One of Liz's methods of coping with her situation would powerfully influence her future. She would hide out in her room and read unreturned library books. So even though she was never at school, she would always get a 90 percent or better on the year-end test that determined if she would jump to the next grade. In spite of everything, she was becoming a scholar.

Bad Times, New Friends 
In 1990, when Liz was 10, her mother was diagnosed with AIDS. Liz's sister and mom went to live with Liz's godfather, leaving Liz alone with her father. But the state got wind of the situation and took Liz into custody for her own protection. The people at social services told her that in 24 hours, she could be released to her mother and godfather. She waited. No one came to claim her for 35 days! During the same period, her father was evicted from the old apartment and ended up homeless. To Liz, it began to look like her choices were running out.

She was finally released to her godfather and stayed with him for a few years, but this wasn't much of an improvement. He was abusive, and her mother's health was failing fast as she continued to drink. While Liz cared for her mother, she attended the eighth grade and befriended a girl, Chris, from school. 

Like Liz, Chris came from an abusive household, and the girls formed a close bond in sheer self-defense. They would skip school to wan- der New York, and Chris often secretly spent the night with Liz to avoid going home to her own brutal father. But when Liz's godfather learned of this one night and demanded that Chris get out at 3:00 A.M., the two girls packed up and ran away, never to come back. 

"I was 15 and Chris was 14," Liz says. "We became homeless. At first we thought it would be a big party, visiting one friend's house after another. We believed that we would get apartments and jobs and everything would go smoothly." 

That vision quickly soured. When they couldn't beg shelter from friends, Liz and Chris would ride the train all night or sleep on rooftops or in stairwells. 

From Death, a New Beginning 
In 1996, Liz's sister shared the news that their mother had died. They got a Catholic cemetery to donate a funeral, and her mother was buried in a pine box with her name written on it-misspelled and scribbled in magic marker. At one end of the box was written "Head" to tell the grave diggers which way to place the body in the ground. 

The indignity and sadness of her mother's end shook Liz to her core. To make matters worse, Chris went back into the state child welfare system. Liz was now alone and at the lowest point of her life. "I realized that my self-image as an independent woman of the streets was a delusion. I was 16, with an eighth-grade education, and I was homeless," Liz says.

She was clearly at a crossroads. "I had learned to get by and had done well under the circumstances. Who would blame me, right? I had every excuse in the book to give up and become another statistic. But I also knew I was capable of something more." But where to begin? Liz started by asking a simple question: "What if I made the most of every day? What if even a single action was guiding me to a greater goal? What could be possible?" Armed with only her faith in what could be, she looked at the problem-her entire life up to this point-and decided to come up with a plan to change it. 

First, she had to get a job. She found one, going door-to-door soliciting donations in support of political initiatives. Her survival depended on her success, and her determination paid big dividends. She broke all sales records, and within two months, she made $8,000--even more than her boss! 

Next step: education. The public school in her district was enormous and could be dangerous, and Liz feared she couldn't get a good education there. So she tried to get into a small private high school, but her abysmal GPA meant no private school would touch her. She didn't want to tell an admissions officer she was homeless for fear of becoming a ward of the state again. Finally, she used a friend's address and phone number and was accepted to Humanities Preparatory Academy. 

For Murray, it was as if she'd been born to study. She tore into her schoolwork, taking Shakespeare, joining student government, and getting at least a 96 in every class. To her teachers and fellow students, she wasn't a homeless daughter of drug addicts. She was a star. School was everything she had hoped it would be.

A Fateful Choice 
Completing four years' work in two, Liz graduated at the top of her class. She won a trip to Boston with her school, and the group made a short trip to Harvard. She fell in love with the prestigious university. On the spot, she realized that she wanted to go to an Ivy League university, a dream she wouldn't have even dared allow herself just two years before. Now, though, empowered by her academic success and her soaring belief in herself, she knew this was where she wanted to be. 

But how would she pay for a first-rate education costing tens of thousands of dollars a year? Liz applied for every scholarship she could get her hands on. One was a $12,000 scholarship offered to needy students by the New York Times. She noticed that while they didn't ask much about GPA or SAT scores, they did ask one question that stood out for her: "Were there any obstacles you had to overcome?" Well, she had certainly earned her Ph.D. in overcoming obstacles. So she poured her heart into that application, telling her entire life's story. She mailed it in, but with 3,000 people competing against her, she didn't hold her breath. 

Next, Liz and her sister got an apartment together, but just after they signed the lease, her sister lost her job. Bills mounted; eviction was imminent. At the same time, Liz learned she was a semi-finalist for the New York Times scholarship and had to go for an interview ... on the same day and time she had to go to the welfare office to get the money she and her sister needed to keep their apartment. 

At the welfare office, the clock ticked. Liz knew that if she didn't get service soon, she'd miss her New York Times appointment. But she needed the money! She tried to explain her predicament to a welfare worker, but her plea got her nowhere. 

She had to make a choice. Stay, or go to the interview and lose the month's income? This was it, the ultimate test of her belief in herself and her brighter future. And in an act of immense courage, she turned her back on the past, walked out of the welfare office, and bet her and her sister's futures on her interview at the Times. The last thing she said to the scholarship panel at the New York Times was, "I hope you realize how important this is to me." 

A Choice Rewarded 
A few days later, Liz got the news-she had won the scholarship! The five winners were profiled in the newspaper; her life story was no longer a secret. Almost immediately, strangers, moved by this young girl who had come so far against such incredible odds, were coming out of the wood- work to help. They paid her bills and the sisters kept their apartment. People were so moved by her story that they donated more than $200,000 to the Times to fund more scholarships. 

Then Harvard came calling. When Liz opened the acceptance letter, she screamed. "I felt like I had wings," she says. "I felt like I could do anything." She attended for two years, then left to take advantage of opportunities to speak to other young people. After all, she was a living example of what could be done with a focus on the future, a ton of determination, and a little help from some friends. 

To this day, Liz credits her successes to the question she asked her- self after her mother's death. "I attribute every single thing that's happened to me to that moment when I had a little conversation with myself and I made the decision to be active instead of reactive. I decided that I was going to get up every day and make the most of what was put in front of me. Since then, phenomenal results have come in." 

In 2003, the Lifetime television network produced a movie about Liz's life, called Homeless to Harvard, starring Thora Birch. Her autobiography, Breaking Night, is due out. And she and her father, who has AIDS, have reconnected and are in each other's lives again. 

Surprisingly, Liz has never held a grudge against her parents. "I cared for my parents very much, and despite what was happening, I felt they cared for me," she says. "I know that may sound strange. I had lice in my hair and holes in my clothes, and we had animals in the house making a mess. But my parents had a disease. If I hadn't eaten a hot meal in two days, my mother hadn't had one in three, maybe four. They were not being better parents somewhere else and coming back to be malicious to my sister and me." 

Liz Murray had every reason to give up, to give in to bitterness or despair and let herself become just another statistic. But she didn't. Instead, she took a hard look at her problems, made no excuses, and told herself she deserved more. More important, she believed that she had the ability to change her present and shape her future. At her mother's funeral, standing on the edge of a pauper's grave, she made a brave decision: The ending of her story would be different. Then step by step, page by page, chapter by chapter, with will, intelligence, and faith in herself, she rewrote her life. 

"Anything that is within someone else's reach is also within yours. Set your goals no matter how impossible they may seem. Then focus on what is between you and that goal. And then, simply take out the obstacles as they come."

-Liz Murray

Page created on 4/22/2015 7:56:51 PM

Last edited 4/22/2015 7:56:51 PM

Related Links

Unstoppable Women Challenge - Challenging ONE Million Women to Take ONE Powerful Step
Perseverance an Award Winning Short Film by Human Relations Media - Liz Murray talks about working hard to make her dreams come true

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Author Info

MY HERO wishes to thank Cynthia Kersey for sharing stories of inspiring women from her book Unstoppable Women with our global learning community. Below is an excerpt from her introduction to the book...

"It's my sincere desire that this book and the individuals you'll meet will significantly impact your life as they have mine. Allow their stories to open new possibilities in your life and instill in you the overwhelming conviction that you can overcome and achieve anything. May God bless you as you travel on your own unstoppable journey."

Click here to listen to the Liz Murray story